When MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder pledged last Friday to reform the way the MTA does business, he stressed the redundancies inherent in the way the transit organization is set up. There are, he said, 92 different public phone numbers and five call centers fielding complaints from the public. Over 5000 workers perform administrative tasks, and many of those jobs overlap. “There will,” he said, “be layoffs.”
Since his speech on Friday, Walder has received qualified phrase from those watching. The Daily News urged every government official to strike a similar tone, and transit activists were equally enthusiastic about Walder’s priorities. “The speech,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said, “was a candid assessment of the financial challenges the MTA faces and of the agency’s commitment to tackling them, such as lowering hundred of millions in administrative, inventory and overtime costs.”
At the time, Walder skirted around the issue of the MTA’s labor relations. “Our unions must be active partners,” he said but refrained from going into detail. After all, at a time when the MTA could least afford it, its largest union had just been awarded a three-year raise, and the agency’s decision to appeal the arbitration result had left many at the TWU bitter toward the authority.
Yet, some would prefer to see Walder, with proper political support, tackle the union and the MTA’s labor cost problem head on. Nicole Gelinas, who has made exploding pension costs her fight, is one of those people, and in yesterday’s Post, she offered up her take on the MTA’s cost problem:
Here are some specifics. The MTA spends $6.4 billion a year on current-worker wages and benefits. A unionized city transit worker earns nearly $94,000 a year, including more than $26,000 in benefits. The unionized commuter-rail worker earns even more — well above $120,000.
Nor is it just union jobs. The average white-collar worker at NYC Transit and Metro-North earns well above $120,000, too. And LIRR administrators beat them by a mile, topping $142,000 each. (Patronage, anyone?)
MTA labor relations aren’t white-collar vs. blue-collar — but everyone against the taxpayers.
The savings Walder laid out are worthy. But cutting, say, 10 percent from administrative personnel would yield just $90 million — a rounding error in the authority’s $12 billion budget. Saving 10 percent in union labor costs, on the other hand (including pensions over time), would yield a much heftier $546 million, because the union workforce is much bigger.
The MTA has long tried doing this in the cooperative “let’s work with our labor partners” way for years — and we’re still waiting for results. What riders need is for Walder to call for full support — from Paterson and the Legislature — for a full labor overhaul. Workers must pay more for health care, and future workers must pay more for pensions, saving hundreds of millions. (Instead, the new contract for subway and bus workers has them paying less toward retirement.)
Gelinas’ basic point is a sound one. From top to bottom, from management to track workers, from blue collar to white, the MTA’s compensation scales are crippling the organization. It’s bureaucratic flow chart makes no sense, and its willingness to give away perks have driven up labor costs in every sense. Cutting from MTAHQ will save some money, but the rising tide of pensions and health care costs will sink all ships.
So what is to be done? In this pro-labor city, it’s tough to tackle the unions. They enjoy public and political support, and workers’ rights shouldn’t be eroded as is. But as some point, the MTA will be unable to pay, and everyone — the riding public, the train workers, the desk jockeys — will lose.